Erich Heller

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1024

Erich Heller was arguably the best-known literary critic and historian of Austrian and German literature in the English language during the 1950’s and 1960’s. He was born in Komotau, Czechoslovakia (formerly Bohemia, which was a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), on March 27, 1911. Like Franz Kafka, he studied law at Charles University, Prague, and he received his doctor of law degree with distinction in 1935. When Czechoslovakia was invaded by the armed forces of Nazi Germany in March of 1939, Heller emigrated to England, where he received his Ph.D. degree from the University of Cambridge in 1948.

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From 1943 to 1945, Heller taught as assistant lecturer in German at the London School of Economics. From 1945 to 1948, he was lecturer in German and director of studies in modern languages at Peterhouse College, Cambridge. In 1948 Heller was appointed professor of German at University College of Swansea, Wales, where he taught from 1948 until 1960. In 1960 Heller accepted a position as a professor of German at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. In 1968 he was appointed Avalon Professor of Humanities at Northwestern University. Heller has been visiting lecturer at universities in Germany and at Harvard University, Yale University, Brown University, and other American universities. In 1957-1958 he was Ziskind Visiting Professor at Brandeis University, and in 1963, Carnegie Visiting Professor of Humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was a member of the German Academy for Language and Literature, the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts, and the International Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, and Novelists (PEN) (Germany and Austria), and was a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He received the Gold Medal of the Goethe Institute in Munich and the Great Cross of Merit from the West German government.

Heller’s importance in the history of literary criticism was universally recognized from the 1950’s to the 1970’s, but his work subsequently was overshadowed by the literary theories of the neo-Marxist Frankfurt School, French structuralism, and American deconstruction, as well as by the debate about postmodernism. Heller identified with the modernism of T. S. Eliot, Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, and Rainer Maria Rilke. He was primarily an essayist who avoided theories and systems, and his methodology as a literary critic was relatively subjective and conservative. His essays show a pro-Nietzschean and an anti-Hegelian bias. The book that gained fame for Heller was The Disinherited Mind, a collection of essays on Austrian and German literature and philosophy. Published in 1952, after the defeat of Nazi Germany, which had caused so much destruction in Europe, the book reminded its readers of the Austrian and German writers, from Karl Kraus to Kafka, who had warned the world of the impending catastrophe. For Heller, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe represented the standards of poetic and human values, while Friedrich Nietzsche was the first to recognize that these values can no longer be realized in the twentieth century. Heller made the English-speaking world of the 1950’s and 1960’s aware of the literary and philosophical heritage of the “other Germany.” Heller himself was an exile, driven out of his native Czechoslovakia by the Nazi Occupation of 1939, and as an exile, he saved a tradition that was in danger of being forgotten. The mind that is characterized as disinherited in this book is the German (and Austrian) mind, but at the same time, this disinherited mind is representative of the modern mind.

Heller’s Thomas Mann introduced his fellow exile Mann as the master of narrative irony. Respected as a philosophical novelist, Mann was presented as an author in the style of the ironic novel, the heir of the tradition of modern European literature. In this manner Heller interpreted the “theology of irony” of Mann’s biblical series Joseph and His Brothers, published between 1933 and 1943, and commented on the parody, tragic and comic, of Mann’s Doctor Faustus (1947). Heller’s book, one of the best written about Thomas Mann, made the novelist accessible to the English reader without trivializing him. The main character in Mann’s novel, Adrian Leverkuhn, was based on Nietzsche. Heller points out that Leverkuhn and Nietzsche both asked for madness as well as genius. Dealing with the question of Romanticism, Heller discussed the disproportion of the inner life and the external world in modern art, citing Rilke’s 1923 Duino Elegies as the prime example in The Artist’s Journey into the Interior, and Other Essays, a collection of essays published in 1965. The Duino Elegies were presented as a Hegelian prophecy of the end of classical art and its fulfillment. The other essays dealt with Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, Nietzsche, and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

One of the foremost Kafka scholars of his generation, Heller introduced Kafka to his English readers and was the editor of Kafka’s letters to his fiancé, Felice Bauer (Letters to Felice). When Nietzsche had become totally unacceptable in intellectual discussions because of his abuse by the Nazi regime, Heller was one of the first to rescue the philosopher from his association with German Fascism and to identify him as one of the first spokesmen of modernism. Nietzsche, in Heller’s view, was a tragic figure, because he could not believe in God but at the same time had a great need to believe. According to Heller, Nietzsche believed that modern self-consciousness made authentic belief impossible. Heller contrasts Nietzsche with Jacob Burckhardt, whose need to believe was conspicuously absent. Heller also places Nietzsche in the tradition of Plato, Saint Augustine, Blaise Pascal, and Søren Kierkegaard, all philosophers whose writings were very personal. In literature, Heller places Nietzsche in the company of Goethe, Kafka, and Rilke. Nietzsche was a defender of Goethe’s values. Kafka was someone who felt the death of God but, according to Heller, could not endure it. Nietzsche and Rilke were alike in their opposition to the artificial distinction between thought and feeling. Heller’s collected Nietzsche essays were published under the title The Importance of Nietzsche.

During the 1950’s and 1960’s Heller’s essays were required reading for all who were concerned not only with the situation of German and Austrian literature but also with twentieth century literature in general. Apart from their historical interest, their humanistic appeal will continue.

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